There had been very little planning involved in this trip; even what little was done, this was never part of it. All Neil knew to answer was not here, away but the actual logistics of highways and destinations never crossed his mind. He shrugs. There’s not enough south of them to bother (except Florida, and after last time they’d made the promise of never again), or to the east. It’s north, or west (and north is home, but it is also Baltimore).
They go west.
(They go a little bit north first. Andrew gets a half-mile down the highway before he says that he would rather die than drive through Alabama.)
“I’ve never been on a train before,” Andrew tells him once - they’re waiting at a railroad crossing, Neil unconsciously counting the cars as they clatter by, but his mind pulls itself away at the words. It’s still early enough on that any break from his normal reticence is alarming, and Neil responds to it with matched focus. “A real train, I mean.”
Neil spent only one day in San Francisco and hadn’t been in any state of mind to make heads or tales of the area’s not-quite-a-train public transit, but he knows what Andrew constitutes a ‘real train.’ “I like trains,” he repays the truth with one of his own. “They’re relaxing.”
Trains are set schedules and concrete routes. They’re quick, and they’re quiet - no one takes trains anymore, not really, and the people who do are so used to comings and goings that it’s all but impossible to stand out. He’s caught a few trains in his life, sneaking aboard in darkened yards or scrambling two cars from the end as they slow for crossings or bridges. Planes are falling and cars are burning and trains are - trains are safe.
They leave the car at the house.
Neil leaves a note for Robin, just in case, that tells her that everything’s fine.
It’s not until they’re passing through St. Louis, the iconic archway growing smaller in the distance, that Neil finally answers. “There are…” He can’t find the words. In his head he’s gone over it hundreds of times, repeating it like a mantra - this cannot be forgotten. “From before-” It’s the same way he used to repeat his name, Neil Josten, Number Ten, Striker, as if the repetition could form into reality. But all those words, the careful planning, stick in his throat. This isn’t his story, it’s Nathaniel’s, and he’s not sure he remembers how to go back there. “I have-”
Andrew’s hand goes to the back of his neck; the weight is familiar. Grounding. It’s a reminder. “I thought you wanted a vacation,” he growls, but guides Neil’s head down to rest on his shoulder - no one takes trains anymore, or not enough to fill entire cars. They’ve been left relatively alone since they left Columbia.
Of course Andrew understands - he always has. “It’s time,” is all Neil can manage.
He kicks his feet up to rest against the seat in front of them; he doesn’t move his shoulder or, by extension, Neil, in the process. “If you were this desperate to be miserable,” the end of the conversation is punctuated by Andrew jerking the hood of his sweatshirt to cover his head, tugged down over his eyes. “We could have just gone to Aaron’s.”
Neil grins. “That would be worse.”
The temperature is in the mid-nineties when they finally reach Millport. Summers were hot in South Carolina and they’re hotter in Georgia, but this is different; it’s desert heat, dry and arid, and lacks the sticky-sweat feeling of the South. Andrew eyes the wide expanse of sandy desert and shimmering pavement with disdain. “This place is terrible,” he comments around a bottle of water.
Neil completely agrees. “We’re leaving tonight. We just need-”
Andrew throws the half-empty bottle at him. “You dragged me across the country to relive your past.” He makes it sound as though he hadn’t been the one to purchase the tickets, hadn’t been the one who told the counter Arizona before Neil even had a chance to speak. “Don’t pretend you aren’t going to drag me on a detour past your old court.”
It has never ceased to be a source of fascination, the way Andrew understands him - he always has, even back in the days before Neil was a real person. At the very beginning, when Neil was a name and a number and not much else, and still today. “In my defense, it’s not a detour,” and Andrew looks like he wishes he had something else to throw. “It’s on the way.”
(Seven blocks, Andrew snarls at him later, is not ‘on the way.’)
Home of the Dingoes, the sign reads.
For an entire year of his life, Neil had lived and breathed this court; in many ways, this court is the birthplace of Neil Josten - the fiction, not the fact, but sometimes the lines between them are blurred, even to him. It was the port in the storm, after his mother. It was the start of adventure, before the Foxes. In many ways, this court (Small. Peeling paint. Unfamiliar smell.) was the foundation for the most important moments of his life.
“Are you feeling nostalgic?” Andrew hisses the word like something hateful, lighting up a cigarette with quiet delight only four feet from a no smoking sign.
He’s not. “I feel like I should.” He should. By all rights, this is where it all began - this was where he began and ended. He should probably feel a tug of emotional attachment, but instead he shrugs. “But I’m not.” Considering, Andrew rewards him by passing the cigarette over.
“Hey!” He probably should have seen this coming, too. “You can’t smoke in here!”
Even with the eight years and the thirty pounds difference, Hernandez looks relatively the same; he’s older, sure, but he’s instantly recognizable as the man Neil used to know. From the way he bears down on them as intruders, it’s obvious that the recognition is one-sided. “Sorry, Coach.” He pinches the cigarette out with his left hand and pockets the remainder. “Old habits.”
Hernandez stares at him like he’s seeing a ghost. In some ways, he is. “Neil.” His arms clench like they’re fighting an order to move, and he suddenly looks much, much older.
Neil doesn’t know how to react to someone saying his name like that (Like a sob. Like salvation). “Hey.” He takes an instinctive step backwards, away; it brings him shoulder to shoulder with Andrew, who jostles hims painfully. Even that is a comforting presence, the familiar weight of Andrew at his back, despite the sharp point of an elbow in his ribs. “We were just passing through town. I wanted to stop by, say hello.” He shifts nervously; he hasn’t felt caged in like this is years, but here, on the Dingo court, with the Dingo coach, and it’s like he’s on the run again. “I wanted to say…”
He stops talking at the low, wounded noise that escapes the older man. “Neil,” and he does move this time - his arm comes up, shoulder level, but freezes a foot away. It doesn’t drop.
“I wanted to say thank you.”
Hernandez grabs him by one shoulder, squeezing in the way Wymack does. The way Matt does. “I’m sorry.” The hand clenches tight, too tight, before recoiling as if electrocuted. “You were trying to run, and I-”
“Gabriel.” It had been over breakfast that morning, when Neil let out a snort of laughter into his coffee. ‘I don’t even know Hernandez’s first name. I don’t know if he’s married, if he has kids. He was my coach for a year, he got me into college, and I don’t know anything about him.’ Andrew rolled his eyes; he’d given up trying to end the conversation after the fourth attempt, when Neil had ignored him in favor of babbling nervously. ‘His name is Gabriel. He’s divorced. His son’s name is Carlos. Fucking shut up and google something for once in your life.’“It’s-” If he had run, he never would have found his way to the Foxes. That first year was death and pain and blood. The second was chaos. The third and fourth were quiet, steady. The fifth was dark and lonely. “It’s fine.”
Andrew makes a disgusted noise beside him at the sentiment - he’s not like this with the team, with the press. This is the false Neil Josten, the one from before; in some ways, the more genuine. Hernandez narrows his eyes at the sound. “Andrew Minyard.” He slowly releases his grip on Neil’s shoulder. “Last time I saw you, you tried to kill Neil in my locker room.”
It was a lifetime ago. “That’s nothing special,” and here’s the real Neil, the sharp-tongued amalgamation of twenty-three names and twenty-three men. This is the predator’s smile that sends the press running. “He’s already tried to kill me twice just today.”
“Three times,” Andrew corrects. “I’ll tell you later.”
The coach’s gaze flickers between the two of them, back and forth, no doubt drawing lines between what he knows and what he’s heard; whatever conclusion he comes to, all he does is smile. “I was there when you played the Trojans, the year after they took the championship against Penn. That was a hell of a game.”
Neil grins at the memory; it was a great game. “You should have said hello.”
Hernandez wilts. “I didn’t think you would want to see me.” It’s over four hundred miles from Millport to Trojan campus; Neil fidgets, again bringing his shoulder in contact with Andrew’s. Genuine acts of kindness towards him still make him uncomfortable.
He gives Hernandez his cell number before they leave.
The storage unit is coated with almost a decade of dust.
When they finally wrench it open, it’s hard to reconcile the chaos within as something that belongs even in the same sentence as Neil (everything I own fits in a bag, he’d said once, and maybe the years have changed them both for the better but they’re still the same at heart as when they first met. The only reason their apartment isn’t bare beyond the essentials is that they have an extended family who fills the spaces they left when they moved away with personal touches).
The storage unit, all fourteen-by-fourteen feet square of it, is filled from floor to ceiling with things.
Boxes are stacked into cautious, methodical towers; a rough estimate is three hundred of them, the white bankers boxes that can be purchased in bulk from any office supply store, stacked in perfect columns of eights along the perimeter. In the middle, less organized, are piles of terrible fabrics draped over furniture of similar florals. Andrew sees a couch first, something hideously outdated even beyond spending a decade in storage, and two worse-for-wear armchairs. The clothing piled atop them is a mixture of aged blouses and uncomfortable looking sweaters - everything smells faintly of baby powder and of forgotten moments.
Neil doesn’t move from the door, rooted in place whatever past emotions this place brings up, so Andrew takes it on himself to walk the six steps in before his way is blocked. “You know, I always knew your lack of materialism was a lie,” and he speaks in the same even tones he would use if they were driving to the court, or wandering the aisles of the grocery store. “You’re too fucking sentimental for anyone to believe it.”
It works; Neil grins at him, albeit weakly, and moves from the door. “Fuck you. Most of this stuff isn’t mine.”
Andrew drapes a pastel blouse, size XXL, over Neil’s shoulders. “I couldn’t tell.” He eyes the mess with practiced disdain, but he is the person who understands Neil best; he can see a form of method in the madness. “Which one is it?”
“Nineteenth row,” and there isn’t a smile on Neil’s face but there’s the hint of one in his voice - he’s not shutting down, but he’s not moving either. “Sixth box down.” It is, of course, against the back wall of the unit. It’s not the most inaccessible pillar of cardboard, not by far, but it’s still a struggle for Andrew to work his way to; more than one of the items between the door and the far wall find themselves thrown alongside the series of curses in three different languages, until twenty minutes have passed and they’re standing on tip toes to pull the door back down. “One of the old ladies from the church had died,” Neil explains without explaining, “and they didn’t have family. The landlord just wanted the apartment emptied.”
He accepts the scrap of truth with a shrug. “We’re coming back for that ugly ass couch.”
“A Dodge Durango repair manual,” Andrew repeats for the third time, like he still can’t believe it. “From 1997.”
They’re back on the train, this time heading north; Neil hasn’t spoken since they left Millport. He hasn’t moved to take the box from Andrew, either - it’s not quite worrisome yet, but it is unusual. “I don’t think I can do this,” he finally admits. They entered the state of California over an hour ago, and are only a few hours outside San Francisco - they have to change from a train to a bus in the Bay Area. The Coast Starlight would be faster, but it bypasses parts of the state that he needs to see.
Andrew flips through the dirty book for the seventh time; it is entirely, annoyingly, unremarkable. No pages are marked, or folded, or in any way meant to serve a purpose beyond offering advice on truck repair (he’ll never admit it, but Andrew has already tried flipping to pages and sections that relate to Nathaniel’s name, date of birth, and his parents’ anniversary with no luck yet). “Then don’t.”
“I have to.”
“Then shut up about it.”
The conversation between them is sharp and short, entirely at odds with the way Neil has fit himself sideways in the seat, his spine following the length of Andrew’s arm and his head draped backwards against his shoulder. He counts the rivets on the ceiling so he doesn’t count the dwindling miles between them and the beach; Andrew winds tighter with tension the closer they get to the city. It’s not only Neil who’s taking a trip to the past on this train.
In the end, the train takes them east instead of west. The closest they get to San Francisco (Oakland is the shithole across the bridge, Andrew gestures vaguely. His hands don’t shake, but it’s an unnatural steadiness. Intentional. Neil tangles their fingers together and draws the hand down to the arm rest.) is a view of tall buildings in the distance and a general impression of bright lights and loud noises. At the station in Martinez they climb aboard a bus, and they leave the cities behind.
The Amtrak pulls to a stop outside a building marked ‘Cultural Center,’ doors squeaking open to salt air and biting cold, despite the summer month.
Neil is frozen to his seat (dried blood on the vinyl), but he blinks when Andrew stands; he has their bags balanced on the lid of the box, and he looks everywhere but at Neil as he exits the bus. “Cultural center,” he repeats slowly, hazel eyes following the length of the two-lane highway. “That’s rather ambitious of them.” He doesn’t wait to see if Neil has followed before he marches up the side of the road, the half-lit sign of a motel only just visible through the fog.
By the time Neil catches up (Salt in the air. Salt on his cheeks. The smoke had mingled the fog and the crashing waves had matched the pounding in his ears and all he could feel was the sand beneath his nails as he dug the hole deeper. He stopped just short of burying himself too), Andrew’s already rented them a room. Their bags are set at the foot of the single queen-sized bed.
“Go to the beach.” His voice is not gentle - it’s sandpaper rough, the same way he’d once said you are a Fox, like he could scrape that reality into the world around him. “Or don’t. But we leave first thing in the morning, and we’re never coming back here again.”
The words carve themselves into truth.
When Neil slips out of bed and into a pair of sweatpants, lacing into his running shoes, he heads south instead of north. He jogs until his body stops rejecting the Pacific air on every breath, until he can inhale salt and fog and cold and exhale without choking. The highway runs parallel to the ocean, the crashing of waves just out of sight, and the streetlights form halos in the fog - it’s like a dream, but not quite a nightmare. When his muscles are loose and his mind is at peace, he turns back up the road and he heads for the sea.
His mother is buried on a small stretch of sand and rock at the base of a cliff just north of the city limits.
There’s nothing to mark the place, beyond his own pain and the map etched into his heart by grief; even though nothing looks the same, he knows exactly when he reaches it. His legs give out and his throat closes up, and he allows himself to cry for the first time since he last walked away from her.
Time passes. He doesn’t know how much - the sky is still dark but his throat is raw and his face is dry and he feels like it’s been only minutes, and at least a lifetime. All he knows is his skin is hissing with needle-sharp prickles as the jacket falls over them, and his eyes are stinging with the sudden steam-heat from the coffee placed in front of him. “Thanks,” he says. Or, he thinks he says. He’s not sure if he’s able to produce sound anymore.
Andrew responds with a similar noise of acknowledgement - not quite words, but Neil understands anyway. “Are you going to stay out here all night?”
It’s cold. “Probably.”
He makes another noise, this one of disgust. “If you’re thinking about dying here, let me know so I can go back inside. If you just want to wallow for awhile, you can do it in the car.” Neil turns to look - sure enough, the headlights of an idling car wait on the road behind them.
“It’s-” He doesn’t know. He pats at his pockets for his phone before remembering he doesn’t have any, and Andrew sighs out a frustrated one forty seven. “Where did you get a car at two in the morning?” He asks the question not entirely wanting an answer.
Andrew hears the agreement that slips into the words, turning to trudge back across the sand after helping Neil stand. “Small towns are great,” he says like he means anything but. “I asked the front desk if there was a place that rented cars, and they called Dale at home for us.” He slides behind the seat of the nearly-as-old-as-them Honda Civic with a grimace, meeting Neil’s eyes through the windshield. “We can return it at any airport when we head home.”
For a quiet few minutes of time, Neil stares through the window at the sea. Andrew stares at Neil. “Your mother is dead.” He says it with the same rough sandpaper voice of before, scraping the words into meaning that turns raw against Neil’s skin. “And you are not.” A sharp twist yanks the car into drive with more force than it requires, the transmission grinding in protest. “Cry if it helps, but you have until we hit Oregon to move on.”
“Thanks,” Neil tells him again; it seems more than lacking, the lowest common denominator of the feelings he’s trying to express, but the car is warm and his skin is cold and there’s already a blanket folded on the passenger seat waiting for him.
Another grunt as the car pulls onto the empty road. “Thank yourself. I rented it with your credit card.”
They drink bitter coffee in Portland, and Andrew makes them wait in line nearly an hour for donuts.
Back in their rented car, Neil flips through the repair manual and dog-ears a few pages with practiced ease. “We don’t need to go to Seattle,” he whispers; he’s half re-tracing his life on the run, the continental U.S. only (If you try and put me on a plane to Europe, Andrew had told him as they crossed the blank expanse of New Mexico,you will not survive the attempt. The thought honestly hadn’t crossed Neil’s mind until that point.), but the next city on the list is not one he wants to repeat. The only memories he has of Seattle are sheets of rain and a late night attack and the way that he knew without knowing that this was the end.
“We’re not going to Montreal,” Andrew counters, another look of disgust on his face. “Canada is too… nice.”
They skip Seattle and Montreal, and pick the trail back up in Bismarck.
They skip Chicago, too.
(We’ll be there for Thanksgiving, Neil mentions, voice hopeful. It counts. Once a year with him is enough.Andrew lets out a puff of air and an oh thank god and turns the car toward Cincinnati.)
Finally, Neil brings them to Colorado.
Durango is a small city along the southern edge of the state, where the mountains are halfway the thick forests of the rest of the state and half the scrubby desert brush of the southwest. It’s eighty degrees in the dead of summer, and the first night they drive into town the sky is so clear it looks as though they’ve left earth entirely.
One breath of the thin, clean mountain air and the last of the tension leaves Neil’s body. “I always liked it here,” he admits, leaning against the hood of their rented car and cradling a cigarette in his hands.
“It’s not the worst place we’ve been,” Andrew admits. He’s looking up at the vast expanse with something close to interest in his eyes.
Between them, visible only in the soft light of Neil’s phone, lies the repair manual. (Dodge Durango, Andrew had scoffed as the first sign for the city had appeared along the side of Interstate 70. Of course.) “My social security number,” Neil offers the answer to the riddle that Andrew has refrained from asking. “The first number is the chapter, the second two are the page of the chapter.” He flips to the page that he’s had marked for the last few states, angling it for Andrew to see. “Then the next two numbers are the line on the page.”
The line in question is a series of letters and numbers detailing a specific head gasket set.
He scribbles with a pen in the margins - the series of numbers, letters excluded, and the additional four that must be the remainder of his social security. When he spaces them, it’s a series of two pairs, a trio, and a final pair; he hesitates before scrawling his initials (N.W.) into the breaks between groupings, and the end result is something that could be a latitude and longitude. Andrew remains unimpressed. “I assume you know where we’re going,” he closes the book, but never takes his eyes off of Neil. “So spare me the dramatics of your Rube Goldberg code.”
Neil leans across the space between them, slowly enough for Andrew to move away (he doesn’t) and whispers the address against his lips.
It takes four tries to find the turnoff for Peaceful Drive; there’s not exactly a sign, more like a sudden dirt road leading off the highway, and the landscape has changed too much in the thirteen years since Neil last visited.
“There’s nothing here.” Neil had directed Andrew to drive away from the main road, away from anything until they were bouncing down a dirt and pebble path into the wilderness. When he finally called out to stop, the GPS on his phone blinking with ‘destination reached,’ they had been in a field.
Neil grins. “Trust me.”
He gets out of the car and leaves Neil to shoulder the bags. “At least you’ve saved me the trouble of looking for a place to hide your body,” he complains as Neil sets off into the night, but he follows.
They walk for less than five minutes before there’s suddenly a - not quite a house, but not quite a cabin. It’s a two-car garage with a living space built on top of it, and a wide porch that looks out at the mountains and the large swath of untamed land between them. Neil jogs up the flight of stairs, ignoring the way they creak with disuse, and fumbles at the wood around the door; from seemingly nowhere, he pulls a set of picks. “Home sweet home,” he jokes, or he doesn’t. He lingers in the door the same way he had at Wymack’s apartment that first time, on the porch of the house in Columbia, at the door to the court with his fresh set of keys.
The inside is simple and open - a sparsely decorated living room with a blue and gold kitchen in one corner and a wood-burning stove in the other. There is a door propped open to a bathroom at the back, and a ladder built into the wall beside it. Andrew investigates every inch of the main floor as Neil disappears up the ladder; it’s only when he doesn’t return that Andrew gives in and follows after.
The ladder opens to a loft, all white walls of a vaulted ceiling, and the moonlight that filters through the single window offers just enough light to reveal a single bed and the man who sits on it, face stony. He stares at the wall, unseeing, and flinches when Andrew drops to the mattress beside him. “There had better be a good reason we didn’t park in the garage,” Andrew hisses as he kicks off his shoes.
“Couldn’t find the road in the dark,” Neil says softly, but inch by inch his spine relaxes until he’s lying beside Andrew, staring out the skylight to the night sky. “I’ll get the car in the morning.”
Andrew hums, eyes half-closed. “Pick up groceries. I assume there’s electricity?”
It’s the ease with which Andrew understands that unravels the last knot of panic in Neil’s chest; the majority of the trip has been a tug-of-war between was and is, Neil and Chris and Stephen and more, and now that they’ve found the end of the thread they started tugging back in Arizona there’s nothing left except a quiet house and the two men in it. Sometimes, Neil thinks that’s all there is, all there should be.
It doesn’t matter who he is when he wakes up, because he is here and he has Andrew to remind him.
Nine days later, Neil comes back from a run and finds the floral couch from the storage unit in Millport has been placed in the living room, where it fits far too well with the outdated kitchen appliances. “I hate that couch,” he says on his way to the shower.
Andrew is stretched across it, all too innocent. “You’re the one who bought it,” he counters, and that’s when Neil realizes he should probably call a locksmith to have some keys made up.
They spend a month in Durango.
By the time they leave the house is looking less like a forgotten building guarded by thirty-five acres and more like an occasional home, a mismatch of comfortable furnishings and books with cracked spines and dishes in the cupboards.
They dig up the second binder that first week, the coordinates in the book leading them to an otherwise unremarkable place on the property that looks like every other inch of the property until they get four feet down. The plastic bag tears when they drag it free but the binder is unharmed from its time under the dirt - it’s filled with plastic page protectors and plain printer paper, and every inch is covered with numbers. Neil has barely opened his mouth before Andrew shuts it with his own. “There’s a code, I get it. I don’t care. Shut up.”
As the city disappears in the rearview mirror, they’ve added a set of keys and a few account numbers to the box filled with sweaters, and they drive to the airport in silence.
It’s getting late when they land, but they make the drive from Columbia anyway. Six weeks already, and what’s another few hours in a car?
Ellie is in their apartment when they finally get back to Savannah; neither of them is alarmed. She’s the only other member of the Knights who has a key, and the dresser in the spare bedroom is one full drawer of her things (She’s six years free of the Ravens but sometimes it’s still hard for her to return to her apartment alone after they lose a game. Neil is the only one on the starting line who understands, and she refuses to turn to the second line ex-Ravens who might turn her weakness into their gain.) by now.
“I already got the kids from Magda,” she says in lieu of a hello, “and there’s booze in the kitchen.”
Bad news, then. They haven’t even had time to set their bags down.
Andrew goes for the liquor. Neil goes for the cats. Ellie goes right for the throat. “There’s pictures of you guys in Millport.” Aside from returning texts and checking train schedules, they haven’t been using their phones much since they left; they’ve specifically avoided any sort of sports news. “And again in Cincinnati. Press is talking.” They’d been left relatively alone even the times they’d been recognized, but apparently not entirely. As far as bad news goes, Neil can think of worse.
He shrugs. “Let them.”
The day after they returning from finally laying Nathaniel Wesninski’s existence to rest, an early morning phone call from the FBI drags it kicking and screaming back.
“Credit card activity and various sightings place you in half of the U.S. cities you gave us,” a new agent, not Browning, barks as soon as he picks up. “Why?”
The peace he’d found in a deserted patch of Colorado forest evaporates as the floor beneath him gives out, or seems to; it’s one thing to know, objectively, that the FBI keeps tabs on him. It’s another entirely to have this reminder, like they’ve tailed him across the country and back and knew the moment he arrived home. He can’t stop the glance that flicks to the window and the thoughts that immediately wonder if they’re watching him now. “Because I lived there once,” he snarls in return. Because six weeks ago Neil packed a bag and set off across the country to escape the press that was hellbent on turning every aspect of his life into a public event, to escape the eyes on his every move and the question on his every activity. Because he thought some time remembering where he came from might help him feel more like who he was. Because he didn’t think he’d traded the threat of a front page for the threat of a federal indictment. “Because it’s my life.”
The agent is unmoved. “We’ll be in touch,” he promises, and the call ends in a hiss of static and an explosion of violence as Neil throws the phone.
In the three weeks before the season begins, Neil spends at least ten hours a day on the court.
He spends another three running, until finally the urge to run leaves him.
The Knights face off against the Timber Wolves on August seventh, and despite two of their starting players disappearing for an extended length of the off season (No one was worried when they returned. They knew enough to know that Neil couldn’t go any length of time not playing, and that he would find a way to keep his skills sharp when he was away.) the game is a fairly easy victory.
The hard part is what comes after.
Clark follows Neil into the press room (Neil had scored the winning goal in addition to being an ongoing press favorite, but Clark had met him at the court before the game with a small hug and a quiet got your back, bro and hadn’t left his side since), and Ellie sits beside him. The reporters keep relatively quiet until Andrew sits at Ellie’s other side, only the second time in his professional career that he’d come to one of these.
The first had been as he bandaged Neil’s arm. No one could forget.
It starts as a murmur, a single flash here and there, but soon the sound has shifted to a wave and the cameras go off like gunfire. The questions come just as quickly, all but indiscernible from each other, until Neil leans into the mic with the same lethal intent that started the rumors in the first place. “You,” he points at random, voice bland. It’s so far off from his usual presence that the room falls quiet around him.
The man shifts uncomfortably. “I was going to ask if you wanted to address the rumors regarding your potential romantic relationship with Andrew Minyard?” It’s a question. Unsure. The press is losing it’s footing in the face of an entirely uncaring audience.
Andrew leans back in his chair to whisper something at Neil across Ellie’s back; whatever it is, Ellie laughs and makes herself more comfortable. When Neil returns to his previous stance at the microphone, he’s wearing that shark-like smile that always keeps the media at a distance. “I’d say that the rumors are a few years too late for the word ‘potential,’” and before anyone can parse a meaning he’s moved on like he hasn’t dropped one of the biggest bombshells in the sport’s forty year history. “Palmer, we promised you a question.”
Andrea smiles at him, nothing but friendliness in her expression. “Le,” she corrects, but directs the words at Andrew. “I’m back to my maiden name.”
Like the flick of a switch the smile on his face moves from sharp to soft, the same shift that she’s seen in the past when he moves from the public face to the person who wears it. “I’m glad to hear that.” The room erupts into chaos right about then as the gathered fifty-strong reporters suddenly realize what has been confirmed, half immediately going for their phones to be the first to break the story and the other half surging forward with follow-up questions. An island of calm in the middle of the storm, Andrea leans casually against the team’s table.
“You guys didn’t go online much, did you.” It’s not a question - it’s her job to know them well enough to know they wouldn’t, not if they wanted to get away.
She’s resting her arm in front of Ellie, equidistant from Andrew and Neil; it was Andrew she had the deal with, though she suspects Neil would hold up his end without hesitation. “What’s your question?” Andrew stares at her without hostility, like maybe this was a test. Maybe she passed.
Andrea Le grins through her blood-red lipstick. “How does it feel to have made the US Court?”